NASCAR has had its share of controversies this season, as it does most every year, but for perhaps the first time in his nine-year career, Kyle Busch hasn’t been part of any of them.
Busch made waves in the sport when he debuted at age 19 in 2004 and became the youngest winner in Sprint Cup Series history the following year with a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Since, he told the world the Car of Tomorrow “sucked” when he won the car’s debut race in 2007 at Bristol, he’s been cited for driving more than 120 mph, he nearly lost his ride in the No. 18 car at Joe Gibbs Racing in November 2011 when he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in a Camping World Truck Series race and he’s had numerous feuds with drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
But in 2013, one of the sport’s most notorious malcontents has been noticeably absent in the extracurricular nonsense that often accompanies stock car races. In its place, he has established strong credentials for a championship run.
Busch had a win in March at Auto Club Speedway and another win three weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway to go with seven top fives, nine top-10 finishes and two poles.
The big moment of change for Busch was the 2011 truck series incident with Hornaday. NASCAR parked him for the remainder of the weekend and his Cup series sponsor, M&M’s/Mars, almost pulled its funding.
Busch has been a much quieter driver from that point forward, but it looked for a time last season that incident might have also taken away some of the aggression that made him the winningest driver since 2008 in NASCAR’s top three series.
He won at least three races in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World truck series from 2008-2011, but he had just one victory in all of 2012. The driver with aspirations to be an all-time great was suddenly just another good driver who didn’t even make the Chase.
However, Busch regrouped in the offseason and is back to his winning ways. Along with his two Cup series wins, Busch has dominated many of the 11 Nationwide races he’s entered, winning six of them and posting top-five finishes in 10, and he has won two of the four truck series races he’s entered.
Busch’s driving style has returned to form, but his conduct off the track has not, and that’s why he might finally contend for the Sprint Cup championship.
Busch has made the Chase in five of the eight years he’s run a full schedule and started a couple of those playoffs with the top seed because he won so many races, but he’s finished higher than 10th in the final standings just twice, his best being a fifth-place finish in 2007 even though he had just one win that season.
Sure, mechanical failures hurt his chances at the championship in several of those years, but Busch’s temper also got in the way and kept him from achieving the Jimmie Johnson-type consistency through 10 races required to win the title.
Now he might just have it. Busch has led laps in nine of the season’s first 15 races and has moved to sixth in the points standings as quietly as he drove to a fourth-place finish last week at Michigan.
For once, Busch isn’t the talk of the sport midway through the season. Perhaps that means he will be as he sits at the head table the champion’s reception in Las Vegas.